Elizabeth St John and The Lady of the Tower

The highlight of this year’s Swindon Festival of Literature for me was meeting Elizabeth St. John.

Elizabeth travelled from her 21st century home in California to her ancestral home at Lydiard Park to deliver a sell out talk about her book The Lady of the Tower.

In the majestic Grand Hall in Lydiard House, Elizabeth talked about writing historical fiction and how she crafted her novel about Lucy St John, the youngest sister depicted in the St John family portrait at the centre of the polyptych. Then in the gathering twilight we were treated to a private viewing of the memorial in St Mary’s Church, where Elizabeth and her daughter were photographed alongside their ancestors.

Elizabeth St John and her daughter Emma.
Photo published courtesy of Richard Wintle Calyx Multimedia

Elizabeth’s book, the first in a series, has been a labour of love which had its beginnings in an article Elizabeth wrote entitled The Influence of the Villiers Connection on the First Baronet and his Sisters, published in 1987 in the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz Report No 22.

Meticulously researched, Elizabeth sets the scene as the 16th century draws to a close. With the death of Sir John St John and his wife, the former Lucy Hungerford, what is to become of their only surviving son John and their six daughters Katherine, Jane, Anne, Eleanor, Barbara and Lucy?

In the Lady of the Tower Elizabeth follows the fortunes of youngest daughter Lucy, but in this earlier article she explores the wheeling and dealings of Barbara St John’s husband Edward Villiers and his half brother George, the King’s favourite, created Earl of Buckingham in 1618 (raised to Duke of Buckingham in 1624).

Sir John St John, First Baronet, returns to Lydiard shortly after his marriage to Anne Leighton where he is reunited with his sisters. These were the Golden Years when the family coffers were full and the St John star rising.

Elizabeth writes:

“Amidst all the turbulence of seventeenth century political manoeuvring, power broking, financial scheming and friendship trading, the First Baronet appears as a haven of imperturbability. He seems to have been content to stay close to home, father his children, manage his estates and devote himself to increasing the splendour of his Church and home. His life could never have been dull, though with the constant stream of family crises that his sisters encountered. His willingness to support them through their problems shines through, and Lydiard must have been a welcome retreat from the harsh realities of day-to-day life for all of the the family.”

Elizabeth is American Ambassador for the Friends of Lydiard Park and can be contacted through the website.

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Elizabeth Knollys, Lady Leighton

Pippa Middleton, the younger sister of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, married her millionaire fiance James Matthews today at St Mark’s Church, Englefield in Berkshire in what is already being described as Britain’s wedding of the year.

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s two children, three year old Prince George and his little sister Princess Charlotte 2, were among the eight attendants.

When Catherine Middleton became engaged to Prince William in 2010 a family tree was published purporting that both Catherine and William could trace their common ancestry to Elizabeth Knollys, Lady Leighton and her husband Sir Thomas. William descended from their younger daughter Anne who married Sir John St John 1st Baronet and Catherine from the elder one Elizabeth. (The story of Anne Leighton, who married Sir John St John 1st Baronet in 1604, is told here.)

Unfortunately, in a pamphlet written in 1890 by an over zealous family historian, Canon James Davenport, who jumped to one too many conclusions, as it is so easy to do, and traced the Davenport family through the Talbots to the elder Leighton daughter. Then in 2010 it was republished all over again, this time in the Daily Mail, and I for one became very excited – a second, sideways link from the young Royals to Lydiard House and the St John family.

Sadly the error was quickly exposed – but the good news is there still remains a St John, Lydiard Park link between William and Anne!

The Knollys family were about as close to Elizabeth I as it was possible to be.

Katherine Knollys was her first cousin, the daughter of Mary Boleyn, and possibly even her half sister. There is a much disputed rumour that Katherine was the product of her mother’s affair with Henry VIII. The King, however, did not acknowledge Katherine as his daughter, but he did put a lot of opportunities and wealth in her way. Perhaps neither Mary nor the King could be entirely sure, but there is no denying a strong physical resemblance.

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Katherine, Lady Knollys

Katherine’s husband Sir Francis Knollys served three Tudor monarchs in roles varying from Privy Councillor to Governor of Portsmouth and guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots. A staunch puritan, he worked tirelessly for Elizabeth I at great personal sacrifice.

Katherine served in the young Princess Elizabeth’s household before she acceded to the throne and records reveal that Katherine and her husband Francis took part in the ceremony and celebrations for Elizabeth’s coronation and that coronation livery was granted to Lettice and another sister, Elizabeth Knollys. From 1558 Katherine served as a Lady of the Bedchamber, accompanied by her daughters, including young Elizabeth Knollys, then aged just nine years old, who served as a Maid of the Chamber.

The Queen’s relationship with the couples children was also close and complicated and in the case of their daughter Lettice, well quite frankly, a little weird.

Lettice Knollys

Lettice Knollys

Lettice had an affair with and later married the Queen’s favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Essex, causing the Queen to call her a She-Wolf, among other insults, and to banish her from Court.

At the end of her life the Queen’s last favourite was none other than Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and Lettice’s son, by her first husband Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. I know, bizarre, and the Queen never forgave the beautiful red head who bore a passing resemblance to herself.

But let’s return to the life and times of Katherine’s seventh child and fourth daughter, Elizabeth born upon ‘trynte even’ 1549. Henry VIII’s 12 year old son was on the throne, although the boy’s uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was Protector and called all the royal shots.

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Elizabeth Leighton formerly Knollys

Sir Francis was a Justice of the Peace in Oxfordshire at this time, so it is most likely Elizabeth was born at the Knollys family home Rotherfield Greys. In 1557, during the reign of Mary Tudor, Katherine left the country to join her husband in religious exile in Germany, taking her five youngest children with her; most probably Elizabeth, Robert, Richard, Francis and Anne.

A year later the family returned – Katherine was appointed Chief Lady of the Privy Chamber and the future looked safe – well as safe as it ever looked in Tudor times.

Elizabeth spent pretty much her whole life in the confines of the claustrophobic court where the women employed to care for the Queen’s every need had to apply for a licence to be absent from court for more than two weeks.

Positions at court were all about status with the top posts reserved for ladies from the upper echelons of society.

By 1566 Elizabeth was one of the Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, the day room where the Queen spent much of her time. Elizabeth had daily access to the Queen, to confide in and to influence her and it is known that she was involved in privy council business and decision making.

In 1578 Elizabeth married Thomas Leighton; a somewhat late marriage for both of them. she was 28 and he was 43.

Thomas had been a Gentleman of the Household for ten years before which he had served as a soldier and had seen service at the Seige of Rouen in 1562 and in defence of the garrison at Le Havre a year later. In 1569 he had commanded 500 harquebusiers during the Northern Rebellion and in 1570 he was appointed Governor of Jersey and Guernsey.

Elizabeth, however, remained at court for most of their married life. She had three children, a son Thomas and two daughters, Elizabeth born in 1583 and Anne in 1587.

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Anne St John formerly Leighton

 

And curiouser and curiouser I will soon be revealing yet another link between the modern Royals, little Prince George and the St John family from Lydiard Park.

 

 

 

Elizabeth St John – Puritan pioneer

Have you caught up with Jamestown and how accurate is the portrayal of life in the 17th century pioneering settlement? The eight part series now showing on Sky One tells the story about the “maids to make wives” scheme operated by the Virginia Company of London.

Established in 1607 the Jamestown colony had been without suitable marriageable women for 12 years when the enterprising Virginia Company began recruiting. Dr James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and adviser on the series says the women who volunteered for this scheme had a sense of idealism and optimism and came largely from the middle and lower middle classes.

The colonisation of Lynn, more than 600 miles north along the eastern seaboard, began soon after the settlement of Jamestown.

Local tribal leader Wenepoykin, renamed Sagamore George by the English, headed the Rumney Marsh Indians who lived on the borders of the marsh in Lynn and Saugus, Massachusetts.  Conflict between the indigenous Native Americans and the English settlers was a very real threat when Rev. Samuel Whiting and his wife, Elizabeth St John arrived in 1636.

Elizabeth St John was a pious, serious young woman, about as different from her licentious cousin Barbara, Countess Castlemaine as it was possible to be.

Born in Bletsoe, Bedfordshire in 1605, Elizabeth was the daughter of Oliver St John and his first wife Sarah Bulkeley.

The 17th century St John’s were united by family associations but divided by political allegiance.  While the junior branch at Lydiard Tregoze stood firmly for the Royalist cause, the senior Bletsoe branch was Parliamentarian and Puritan.

Elizabeth’s elder brother was the celebrated lawyer Oliver St John who challenged the illegal Ship Money tax imposed by Charles I and later served as Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas.  Oliver was a staunch supporter of Oliver Cromwell and eventually married into the Lord Protector’s family – twice; firstly to an aunt, Johanna Altham and secondly to a cousin, Elizabeth Cromwell.

Raised in the well heeled St John family Bletsoe home, Elizabeth received a comprehensive education and developed an interest in public affairs.  Her biographer William Whiting writes that she was a fit companion of scholars and statesman. Elizabeth almost sounds too good to be true as William eulogises – ‘Beautiful in person and of cultivated mind, heroic but gentle, learned but modest …fearless of personal danger but of sensitive delicacy towards others, too high spirited to submit to the dictation of British prelates but too sincere a believer in the Prince of peace to provoke or endure controversy which could be honourably avoided, this noble woman gave her heart to her godly husband and her life to aid him in the ministry of the gospel.”

But there can be no denying that Elizabeth was made of stern stuff.

It is not known how or where Elizabeth first met Samuel Whiting.  Before taking a ministry in Skirbeck, Lincolnshire, Samuel had been chaplain to Sir Nathaniel Bacon and Sir Roger Townsend.

Elizabeth married the young widower in Boston, Lincolnshire on August 6, 1629.  The Puritan Pastor had already gained a reputation for his outspoken views and had been twice prosecuted for nonconformity. Influential New England Puritan Pastor Cotton Mather wrote about Samuel that ‘his design was not to please but to profit; to bring forth, not high things, but fit things.’

These were difficult times and the Whitings were among around 20,000 colonists who left England for America during 1630-1640 seeking religious tolerance and with a vision of creating a new and better society.

Whiting forfeited his property in England declaring – “I am going into the wilderness to sacrifice unto the Lord and I will not leave a hoof behind me.”

Elizabeth turned her back on the good life and with her husband, her step daughter Dorothy and her own little son Samuel, to embark upon the unknown. The small family left England in early April 1636 arriving at Boston, New England on May 26 after a tortuous journey.

“I would much rather have undergone six weeks imprisonment for a good cause than six weeks of such terrible sea sickness,” the Rev. Whiting said.

Samuel and Elizabeth remained in Boston for six months before moving north up the eastern seaboard to Saugus where Samuel was inducted on November 8, 1636.

Alonzo Lewis and James R. Newhall describe the area in a History of Lynn published in 1890 as then having a ‘bold and rocky shore, consisting of craggy and precipitous cliffs, interspersed with numerous bays, coves, and beaches, which furnish a pleasing and picturesque variety. Above these rise little verdant mounds and lofty, barren rocks, and high hills, clothed with woods of evergreen.’ Five miles from Salem in the northeast and nine miles from Boston in the southwest, the area contained 9360 acres with a boundary line measuring thirty four miles.

The Saugus territory was later renamed Lynn after Kings Lynn in Norfolk with which the Whiting family had an association.

Elizabeth’s life in Lynn was far removed from the affluent childhood she spent in Bedfordshire.   Among her many duties as Pastor’s wife she instructed the youth of the parish, helped her husband with his writings and ran his domestic affairs. William Whiting, a descendant of the couple, wrote in his memoir of the Rev Samuel Whiting published in 1873 that  Elizabeth’s days were ‘filled with many cares of her family, her parishioners, her guests, and even of the wild savages with whose presence she was not unfamiliar and to whom she gave hospitable shelter.’

And Lynn parishioner Obadiah Turner wrote in his diary that ‘Elizabeth was a godlie woman and did much to cheer and help her husband.  By her learning she was able to give much instruction to the damsels of the parish, and they did all love her as she was a tender mother.’

The couple had six children.  Two died young but sons Samuel, Joseph and John became ministers themselves and their daughter Elizabeth married a minister.

Elizabeth died on March 3, 1677 aged 72.  Samuel died two years later.  They are both buried at the Old Western Burial Ground in Lynn.

Read more about the cemetery on  http://heartoflynn.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/old-western-burial-ground.html